Maltese cuisine is an interesting and unique combination of Italian, Sicilian, African and English ingredients.
Although it may be a tiny island, you can rest assured that all meals are cooked and served with a big heart. Take rabbit (fenek), for instance. One of the most popular, if not the favourite Maltese dish. Such a versatile ingredient for so many different dishes; rabbit with wine and garlic (fenek bit-tewm u bl-inbid), stewed rabbit (stuffat tal-fenek) served with spaghetti, even simply fried rabbit served together with a plate of chips. The Maltese have a huge appreciation for this dish and there are even restaurants that specialise in typical rabbit-based dinners called ‘fenkata’ which includes spaghetti with rabbit that has been lightly browned with garlic and herbs and then simmered for several hours. This is then served in a red wine or a rich tomato sauce with salad or chips on the side. Not forgetting large quantities of crusty Maltese bread (hobz Malti) which has a tasteful fluffy inside needed to soak up the rich sauces.
Other favourite main dishes include beef olives (bragioli) which are thin slices of beef wrapped around a mixture of breadcrumbs, chopped hard-boiled eggs, parsley and bacon, braised in red wine. Due to the homespun nature of its recipes that there is nothing fancy about Maltese cooking, except for the love and pride with which it is prepared. Both baked rice (ross il-forn) and baked macaroni (mqarrun fil-forn) are another two very popular family meals. Both are oven-baked, mouth-watering and hearty meals. Pasta pie (timpana), a baked macaroni variant is also a family favourite. The macaroni, same as in the other two dishes is tossed in a tomato sauce containing a small amount of minced beef, grated cheese and a raw egg; the only difference is that there is a layer of pastry on top of the pasta – original to say the least!
Common household foodstuffs in a typical Maltese kitchen are cheese made from goat’s milk (gbejniet) and broad bean paste (bigilla). These can be eaten alone or with crackers (galletti) and are also common appetisers in restaurants.
As Malta is a nation surrounded by sea, fish often takes centre stage in family meals and is always found on restaurant menus. Fried lampuki (lampuki moqlija) when in season, is wonderful served with a freshly tossed salad and chips. Another classic dish is swordfish – a meaty steak which is usually grilled and served with a caper and tomato sauce is also delicious if simply barbequed and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. When fish is in abundance you can be sure to find fish soup (aljotta) on the menu. This rich soup which has a consistency similar to broth is often served with rice. Once again a portion of fresh Maltese bread would not go amiss!
A Maltese kitchen is synonymous with family gatherings. The Maltese like nothing better than to meet up for a cosy family lunch. There is nothing like a bowl of minestra to warm every inch of your being. This thick vegetable soup consists of sun-soaked produce such as cauliflower, carrots, pumpkin, onions, celery and rice. Not only is this incomparable union of fresh vegetables healthy, it is a comfort food of sorts. It is also well-liked to have stuffed marrows (qarabali mimli) or fresh gbejniet together with this dish.
Once again, the broad bean comes into play – Kusksu (a thick broad bean and pasta soup) is small pasta that looks similar to shotgun pellets which is manufactured locally. Although the pronunciation of kusksu may sound similar to the North African couscous it is not the same. Coupled with a few slices of warm Maltese bread, this nourishing soup is a meal in itself and a spring favourite when broad beans are in season.
The Maltese are a Catholic race and Easter is looked forward to with great enthusiasm. It is another excuse to feast in a celebratory way – and feast they do! Glorious delicacies such as figolli which are large biscuit shapes filled with pure almond paste and covered with sugar icing; kwarezimal Lenten almond cakes where the dough is shaped into long ovals approximately 2cm thick, then spread with Malta honey and coated with chopped almonds/pistachios whilst still hot; karamelli are another customary sweet made from carob in the olden days but made from sugar today. Street hawkers sell these sweets individually wrapped in grease-proof paper, so as to avoid sticky fingers. If you come across a hawker whose sign reads ‘imqaret’ it is highly recommended that you stop and try his wares. These divine deep-fried pastries stuffed with dates and served piping hot are wonderfully addictive.
You may find that you can also become hooked on pastizzi. These oven baked savoury flaky pastry ‘cakes’ truly hit the spot and can either be filled with ricotta cheese, or mushy peas. This popular snack is perfect at any time of the day. Simply walking by and inhaling the aroma will open up your appetite – you have been warned!
This fundamental knowledge of Maltese cuisine is sure to entice you to try a variety of foods and awaken your taste buds.